Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Fall from Grace: Garden of Eden Revisited

Adam and Eve depicted in the Garden of Eden surrounded by many animals
I have always found the biblical story of the Garden of Eden to be puzzling and confounding, to say the least. Questions have abounded regarding its moral lesson and utility. The story seems to suggest that original sin originally came into existence as the direct result of disobeying (admittedly blind and overbearing) power and authority; worse, since the act involved the dichotomy between ignorance and knowledge, the Bible seems to suggest that the former is preferable to the latter, hence delivering a primordial message of ignorance being bliss. Did God really want to us to live and be stuck in the shadowy realm of ignorance?

Add to that, the copious amount of misogyny thrown in as well as thrown at Eve, the mother of all living who is blamed for the ultimate form of temptation, i.e. knowledge and understanding, and one can only scratch or better shake one’s head in profound disbelief, if not utter astonishment at this biblical tale.

That is why until most recently the Gnostic reading and interpretation of Genesis seemed to be more reasonable and much more in line my acceptance and liking. It was the serpent that spoke with the voice of reason, whereas God’s (over)reaction spoke volumes about his fear of humans one day equaling (or even surpassing) him. This may be the main reason why he not only banishes Adam and Eve from his realm, but even puts a cherubim with a flaming sword to protect the tree of life lest humans become immortal too.

Yet when I stumbled upon Erich Fromm’s interpretation, it shone much needed light upon the hitherto dubious beginning of humanity. This all goes back to a concept of God that is overlooked and misunderstood in the Christian view. 

God is embodied as perfect and static. With it goes the mainly cerebral definition (might I say limitation) that everything that is perfect has already reached its full potential and cannot ipso facto improve in any discernible ways whatsoever.

In that sense, the most perfect state would be one that is utterly and completely dead, namely death seen from a strictly materialistic and nonspiritual angle designated and determined as the endpoint and cessation of any forms of consciousness. A stone would then be the most perfect of all beings having reached the stage of being perfectly static and immovable.

But if anything, the Bible shows us that God’s heart alongside his will are not made of stone. He is volatile and fluctuating; he is angry and forgiving; he is loving and cruel; he is at times merciless and at other times full of mercy. And if his very own statement and discovery to Moses were translated as “I am that I am” and taken at face value, it would entail that we are confronted with and praying to a rather intentionally and purposefully conflicting, contentious and confusing power and being.

Yet if we consider God not as statically and immovably outside of time but rather on a point on the plane of evolution, then God might lose his eternally fixed constant of always being or rather always remaining who he is, but he shall then become who he shall be, which could then continue and be prolonged eternally to time immemorial.

This might be a possible and closer translation to the actual meaning of his translated and interpreted comment. If seen as “I am who I shall be,” there is room for the possibility of change and improvement and a certain drive for perfection within divinity itself. If read in such a way, we see evolution and evolvement not only within humans but reflected within God himself as we were made in his image, the same way he is in ours.

If people object to praying to a god that is not already perfectly formed but like his creation strives for perfection on a higher plateau (a view not incompatible with the Buddhist concept of the universe), then one might ask oneself why it would be preferable to worship him as a seemingly emotionally unstable entity. Indeed there are countless moments of anger and fury, where he is controlling and impeding his creations; yet over time he begins to form a loving bond and relationship with humans and shows his greatest sign of love by offering and sacrificing the Son of Man or by making himself Flesh in order to sanctify all human beings and provide them with the necessary divine spark, not unlike the fire of Prometheus in Greek legend.

Such a reading of the Bible would explain why God is initially suspicious of his creatures, as there is a fundamental lack of trust and love and there is not a relationship per se between him and Adam and Eve; yet God manages to change and adjust his point of view.

In return, Adam and Eve did not have much rapport neither to God nor to themselves. Erich Fromm points out that both Adam and Eve did not know who they were and that they lived in a complete state of natural primordial harmony. Our earliest ancestors must have lived similarly as they were and saw themselves as an inseparable part of nature. Yet it all had to come to an end so that growth and evolution could manifest itself.

This could be symbolized with Adam and Eve eating from the tree of good and evil. Suddenly, they lost all touch and contact with nature and were left on their own. They became aware not only of their separate identities but more importantly of their loneliness. Suddenly they stopped seeing themselves as one with nature, and they saw each other as perfect strangers.

Unadulterated paradise existed no more and each had to survive on their own. There was no love yet between them, but only shame, embarrassment and guilt. Adam does not act out of love but out of spite when he blames Eve for the transgression. He tries to save and salvage himself. He has completely forgotten that Eve is part of him and his equal since both are part and parcel of nature and the harmony around them.

The fact that God created Eve out of his rib has given to erratic speculation and the faulty and irresponsible conclusion that therefore he must be superior and she inferior to him. This kind of conclusion is misguided and harmful and is too focused on a literal meaning of an unnecessary detail. What is more important here is the fact that she is created and taken out of him, his body and mind, and that Adam without Eve is incomplete, not unlike Plato’s androgynous being as described in the myth of Aristophanes.

The rib or rather rib cage is meant to protect and support two of our most vital organs, the heart, which is an evident symbol of and stand-in for love as well as the lungs, which regulates and controls respiration, the very breath of life. Furthermore, bones are indestructible life since they persist longer than the flesh. If we conceive of Adam as flesh, then Eve is the bone, the physical and spiritual support of the body. In such a manner, man and woman complement and complete each other.

The same idea is, in fact, expressed by Adam himself when he states that Eve is the “bones of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” It is thus that they shall be One flesh, and both continue to be like God as he created them in his image and likeness. To separate one from the other or to perceive one as essentially different from the other in terms of spirit, love or intellect would be a faulty and misguided interpretation then.

In addition, there might be also a case of mistranslation, since the word rib may possibly have meant “side.” That means that God did not take Adam’s rib but half of his side so that woman would be be-side man, not beneath nor above him; they would be side by side and perfectly equal.   

Before the supposed act of rebellion, Adam and Eve are indeed in a world of pure sensations or rather what Freud would term primary process. Eden is a paradise in which all beings and animals are one and communicate with each other and live in perfect harmony. This is akin to the world of the infant who would have had his needs met in the womb and who comes into the world blind to the outside world still feeling strongly connected and attached to his or her mother.

The moment that this idyllic situation experiences a rupture is the growing awareness of the outside world in terms of other people, objects, and food. This world is explored primarily through the mouth of the infant and through basic sensory experiences, including taste, smell and temperature and corresponding feelings and associations.

It comes as little surprise then that the outside world would be represented by a tree that contains fruit or apples. It is through the physical ingestion of that so-called forbidden fruit that knowledge is gained. Suddenly the perfect harmony is in disarray and Adam is disconnected from this and begins to feel separate and lonely from nature as well as from other beings.

In fact, what he feels for Eve is not nor can be love since the first thing he does is to justify himself before God by accusing her of having incited him. This is also connected to the sudden realization of not only physical nakedness but rather a feeling of shame that is associated and strongly tied with it. It is the budding of sexual instincts, not in the form of spiritual or romantic love union but merely as a primitive instinct or drive.

What stands out between them is their pronounced and visible difference. There is a selfishness or self obsession that drives and separates one from the other and it may be conceived as the growing pains of giving birth. Adam and Eve, God’s first children are not led by rules any more, by admonishments in the forms of don’ts, but they shall acquire moral insight in how to be and how to become, that arduous but eternally rewarding path towards morality and goodness. 

In that moment, in the very act of rebellion, humanity has taken its first stand, or rather it is the first time that humanity stands on its feet; now it needs to learn to walk, and, more importantly, love each other and its Creator. 

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Narcissistic Mothers

Painting by Ambrogio Borgognone from Rijksmuseum
The mother nourishing and taking care of her infant is upheld not only as an ideal for human development, but also considered a sign of spirituality; a mother is often depicted as an embodiment of the sacred and the holy, which is most expressly symbolized in the Holy Virgin of the Catholic religion. In fact, motherhood is put on a pedestal as she is seen engaged in the selfless act of not only protecting her loved ones but also imbuing them with unconditional love. 

Motherhood is equally reflected in the symbol of the Earth as providing protection and nourishment for its inhabitants and used as the symbol of the fertile land or of one’s home in its purest state. In the Bible, this is referred to as the land where milk and honey flows freely. As Erich Fromm points out in his seminal book The Art of Loving, this is the symbol of the mother taking the flock under her wing. But it is important to underscore that ideally each mother would provide both milk AND honey to her offspring.

Giving milk is triggered automatically and naturally within the body via breastfeeding and despite modern artificial and less adequate forms of nourishment (formula milk as milk replacement), it is still what most mothers initially provide to their hungry infant. Humans as a rule are genetically predisposed to instinctively feel warmth and love towards a child, but this feeling tends to be more pronounced in the mother. She will give milk and nourishment to her helpless infant and only the cruelest and most resentful of mothers would deny providing this to their dependent baby.

But as man (and woman) cannot live by bread alone, the child will need more than milk. This is where honey comes into play. This stands for the sweetness of life. It is a mother’s twofold responsibility towards her child to provide not only the basic amenities but also sweetness, meaning an abundance of joy for life as well as spiritual satisfaction and fulfillment. However, most mothers fall short on this second aspect, which causes a wide range of problems within the growth and development of the child, and which spills over and carries on into adulthood.

This so-called lack of sweetness is most pronounced in neurotic individuals, and it is a condition that is most promulgated and exasperated by narcissistic mothers. On the surface, these mothers may appear to be a beacon of the perfect mother and being a narcissist, mothers of this kind enjoy both being the focus of attention as well as having the infant in its most helpless and dependent state of his or her life. Gladly, they take on the role of the giving mother by providing milk as they see the infant as a reflection of their own ego. For a while, narcissistic mothers become the center of attention among family members and friends, and they relish in that feeling as they lavishly soak up each and every pore and aspect of this situation.

Humans, unlike other animals, are in a rather prolonged state of helplessness and dependency, and they need their parents, especially their mother for their survival. In fact, infants are born practically blind. There is no other world for them expect that of the mother with whom they feel united and unified. Infants tend to feel that they are still in the womb connected to their mother through a now invisible umbilical cord and in fact their mother is not only their first contact with the world, but she is also the first love relationship in their life. 

Yet after some time, infants not only become aware of the outside world as separate from themselves, but they notice a new budding identity that feels separate and distant from the mother. This is a period where moments of separation from the mother can create intense feelings of anxiety within the child. In their minds, they fear that the mother has abandoned them and left them to their own devices, which from an evolutionary point of view would signify certain death.

The narcissistic mother still enjoys that stage of development, but she becomes aware and preoccupied that the power she has held on and wielded over the child is slowly beginning to diminish. Soon after the child becomes more and more independent, the mother that provides honey will not only accept that growing separation and independence, but she will actively encourage it and help loosen and later sever the bonds of motherhood, namely to cut the invisible umbilical cord that still emotionally connected the child to her.

Yet that is an unwanted stage and anathema to the narcissistic mother. First, she loses her standing and position as the center of attention from both family and friends. Gradually, her child is also gaining and creating some distance from her. This arouses intense anxiety and frustration in her as her projected role of motherhood as a caregiver is falling to pieces. As her love for the child is not authentic or genuine, let us keep in mind that narcissists are generally incapable of loving or feeling empathy for others (not even themselves for that matter), and as her love and care are merely an expression of her wish to control and have power over the helpless child, she will try her utmost best to stifle the growth and independence of her offspring.

In fact, what happens afterwards with these types of mothers is a case of neurotic “unselfishness.” This supposed unselfishness is, as Fromm points out, not in the sense of love and caring for others but more a manifestation of the hidden symptoms of depression, tiredness and failure in the mother’s own love relationships. The so-called unselfish mother will claim to not want anything for herself and will make others (and sometimes herself) believe that she is only living for others, that is, for her child or children only.

Such unselfishness, were it meant as a true manifestation of unconditional love, should create happiness within the given individual, but the fact remains that the narcissistic mother does not feel happy at all; quite to the contrary, she feels unhappy, sad and angry and resentful with life in general and her lot in particular. These people are indeed paralyzed in their capacity to love or enjoy anything, themselves, their family or their children.

What lurks behind this façade, appearance and demeanor of unselfishness is in fact an intense self-centeredness. Narcissists see themselves as and continuously crave being the center of attention and this is exemplified in their supposed sacrifice (of time, money, resources and energy) for their children; they relish posing as and even complain about being a victim or being victimized by their constant and never-ending state of motherhood. We can see how and why physical but worse emotional independence and separation demonstrated by her children can cause distress and displeasure within such mothers.

Moreover, children who are supposed to benefit from this supposed sacrifice of their mother are in fact not happy but rather traumatized by this situation as they grow up in a toxic environment to begin with. These children tend to be anxious, tense and afraid of the disapproval of their mother and try hard to live up to her expectations yet to no avail as she will never be satisfied with others or herself. 

Children raised by narcissistic mothers feel stifled in their personality and individual expression, while, in many cases, they do not manage to shake off the bonds and tight grip of the domineering and possessive mother. Even in adulthood, they may not only hold onto the need for having their mother’s emotional support and guidance, but they often project those same qualities upon their own partners and spouses.

In fact, a selfish mother in contrast would be much better for one’s psychological health and well-being because the narcissistic mother’s unselfishness works like a protective halo around her. While you can criticize the selfish mother for being careless and for not catering to the needs of the child, the same is much more difficult to be said or done when it comes to the “unselfish” mother; the child feels both conscious as well as subconscious guilt towards her and does not or is reluctant to give or utter any kind of criticism whatsoever. Since the narcissistic mother does not love herself, she is equally incapable of giving love to her child, and this trauma reaches out and continues far into the adult life of that person.

A narcissistic mother is trapped in a time bubble of when she felt most needed and wanted and when her children were merely the object of her power and control. She will do her best to stop their emotional and mental growth and the fact that she does not want what is best for her child but rather what is most convenient for herself shows not only deep-seated self-centeredness but worse a hatred of and contempt for life in general. Not only does she live her own life without honey, but she has also none to give to her offspring so that they must look for a replacement via other means.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Purely Psychosomatic: It’s All in Your Head Book Review

White Book Cover with Cracked Egg
The book It’s All in Your Head: Stories from the Frontline of Psychosomatic Illness by Irish neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan was first brought to my attention by my attentive wife about a year ago. She had found out about this book online and told me about it as she, being in the medical sciences herself, knew me to be a (borderline) hypochondriac. Previously, she would almost always say to me that my problems and ailments were psychological in nature, and I would retort, somewhat angrily, that this was simply not true.

Of course, she was right. But when I stumbled upon this book in our local library, I could not resist to give it a read. Browsing through the pages, I felt a bit discouraged because it was divided by patients’ first names; my first assumption was that it would be merely a collection of case histories and medical accounts and that it would be somewhat dry and boring and, what’s worse, perhaps not very useful to me personally.

And for the second time, I was proven wrong. It is refreshing to have a book like this written by someone who has had extensive and significant work experience with psychosomatic patients and someone who was firmly grounded in the medical sciences as a practicing neurologist. Apart from interesting and relevant background information about the history of psychosomatic illness via renowned neurologists like Charcot, Janet and, of course, Freud, she also provides up-to-date neurological research on the topic.

Psychosomatic illnesses tend to be purely psychological in origin. These are cases where there is ailment and suffering in the patients, but no medical cause can be found or established. Tests and scans turn out negative, meaning that the problem has its origin in the mind. In the past, cases like these were delegated to the condition of hysteria. This would be, in its more extreme cases, paralysis of limbs, although physically there was no discernible damage; the body was healthy and should have been functioning well and properly.

The ancient Greeks coined the term hysteria mostly due to the fact that many women were afflicted by the condition; hence, they (erroneously) believed that it was the uterus traveling to different parts of the body that caused ailments and diseases in those specific parts. Yet at the same time, Greek physicians like Hippocrates considered hysteria to be an organic disease, namely a disorder of the body and not of the mind. Thereafter, in the Middle Ages, hysteria was equated with witchcraft; it was believed that the condition implied that women were possessed by the devil.

It was not until towards the end of the 19th century that the medical profession took up the study of hysteria again and when Freud and other physicians showed how these patients could be led to lose the function of their body parts merely with the power of suggestion, that is through the act of hypnosis. These patients (most of them were female but there were males afflicted of the same conditions as well) had come to truly believe that they were paralyzed. It was, as Freud demonstrated, due to the unconscious part of our personality since it had a certain amount of control over our body without our knowledge or awareness.

It is important to note that people who suffer from psychosomatic disorders are not imagining or inventing illness; they are indeed suffering and need help. They are also more common than you may think as O’Sullivan estimates anywhere between a third to half of all patients coming for consultations to medical clinics to have underlying psychosomatic issues at heart. 

That means that up to half of the patients a family doctor sees on a daily basis do not have physical problems and hence cannot be cured via physical means, such as medication or surgery. Unfortunately, doctors either do not believe in psychosomatic illness, due to their own prejudices and / or medical training or, and this might be more likely the cause, because they feel that patients would not be satisfied and even reproach the doctors for such a diagnosis.

The reason that medical treatment ends up working for some patients suffering from psychosomatic illness would be merely because of the placebo effect. The patients think they are taking medication that would help them and this might calm their fears and anxieties to a certain extent and degree. But it does not treat the underlying psychological cause for which a psychologist or psychiatrist ought to be consulted.

But most of us are reluctant to accept that particular diagnosis. There is a stigma attached to mental health that is harming us and preventing many of us to seek treatment when it would turn out to be essential and vital for our mental well-being. While we would not look down on people with so-called “real” diseases like cancer or Alzheimer’s or multiple sclerosis, we tend to see mental health issues as something minor and less “real”.

I have often heard many giving misguided suggestions to insomniacs and people suffering from depression. No, you cannot merely "snap" out of it; you cannot just close your eyes and fall asleep and you cannot just smile and be happy. This kind of advice makes the afflicted person feel even worse and in addition to their suffering, they would feel guilty about it. They would blame themselves and consider themselves responsible for not being able to “snap” out of it and they would also be less likely to seek the help and treatment they need.

It is important to note that people with psychosomatic illness do not invent or make up their ailments. In fact, this has been scientifically demonstrated. In an experiment, people were told to pretend to have paralysis, that they should try hard not to move their hand, for example. As they were doing so, electrodes attached to their scalp looked at their brain activity. Those who merely pretended to have paralysis had a different part of their brain light up as compared to those who had psychosomatic illnesses.

It shows us that what is happening to these patients is not within their will and control, but it is controlled by the unconscious parts of their brain. How can psychology affect the body in such drastic ways? How can we possibly be led to believe that we have seizures or paralysis when there are no physical causes for them?

And yet the evidence is visible to all of us. Imagine you have a public talk to give in front of hundreds of people. How do you feel? You are most likely sweating, your hands may be cold, clammy, or trembling, you may breathe rapidly, your blood pressure as well as blood sugar could go up, you might feel light-headed, and the list of symptoms goes on.

Oddly enough, all this happens despite there being no physical or tangible threat in front of you; this is merely nervousness caused by a possible sense of embarrassment all played out in one’s imagination. If a relatively minor stressful situation like this can cause such physical symptoms in a person and if it is quite difficult to reign in or control those physical responses, how much more could be going on when there is significant psychological trauma within that person? It is not something that can be solved at the wave of one’s hand or the flick of one’s fingers.

Psychosomatic illness is real, and it shows us the power the mind has over our body. It also underscores the importance of one’s mental health and well-being. Most of us do not even realize that our symptoms are psychological in origin and we continue having unnecessary and ineffective treatment that are meant and deemed for physical conditions.

The book gives many examples of seizures, for instance. Yet it is not always due to epilepsy. Through brain scans and video monitoring during seizure episodes, neurologists can often discard that option and determine that their ailment does not have a physical cause. However, many such patients take (and often even prefer taking) medication that comes with potentially serious side effects and complications instead of getting to the root of the underlying problem.

This book is enlightening especially since we are living in a time where mental health is not given its due and place. But it should be. Fears, anxieties and trauma associated with living in the modern world can take its toll on even the strongest one of us. We need to be open and honest about such issues and not hide behind a fake and pretend mask or a face of toughness. 

We should also treat other people suffering from mental health issues not with disrespect or prejudice but with care and concern. And when necessary, we need to push and guide them (and ourselves) to see past inherent prejudices and seek the treatment that is needed.